Graduate Student Interviews - Jess Hamlet and Reflections of Shakespeare in Civil War Virginia

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We’re back with another installment of our Graduate Student Interviews. Today we welcome Jess Hamlet to discuss her article, 'Not of an Age, But For All Time': Reflections of Shakespeare in Civil War Virginia." She holds a Master of Fine Arts and a Master of Letters in Shakespeare & Performance from Mary Baldwin University. Now, Jess is a Ph.D. Candidate with the Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies at the University of Alabama, where her dissertation considers Shakespeare as a vehicle for encountering moments of political and civil unrest in England and the Empire. Her work on early modern drama, book history, political Shakespeare, adaptation, and race appears in The CEA Critic and edited collections from Palgrave and Arden, and is forthcoming in The Journal of the Wooden O.

Hi Jess, welcome! Why was Shakespeare on the minds of many people in Civil War era Virginia? 

Jess Hamlet: By the nineteenth century, Shakespeare had achieved his status as England's national poet, their greatest export, one of the all-time great writers and thinkers. Bardolatry was at its height and Shakespeare served every function from providing pithy commentary on rising taxes to helping to sell sewing machines. In Richmond, Virginia, Shakespeare was the most commonly performed playwright. Shakespeare would always bring in audiences (and therefore money), because Shakespeare could be both utterly entertaining and capable of moral instruction at the same time. Nineteenth-century Americans would know snippets of Shakespeare from their schoolbooks, and would be familiar with his plays' ability to teach rhetoric, declamation, and moral lessons. These snippets were almost always truncated, contextless, and heavily edited, so a trip to the theatre (where full plays were also often heavily edited; indeed, the Richard III that held the stage until the early 20th century was an adaptation by Colley Cibber that was roughly half original and half cobbled together from the rest of Shakespeare's history plays) allowed them familiarity as well as learning and frivolity. During the Civil War, plays like Macbeth and Richard III offered a kind of escapism for Richmonders in that they could cast themselves and their adversaries as the battling nobles, letting them hang their hopes on the Earl of Richmond's triumph over the dastardly Richard III when the Confederacy seemed to be winning, or comforting themselves with the witches' supernatural control over events when the Union took the upper hand.

What sort of sources did you use to understand how Richmond citizens experienced and interpreted these Shakespeare performances?

JH: I relied heavily on newspaper records of performances. One interesting one comes from the September 4, 1863, issue of The Richmond Examiner. In it is an advertisement for that evening's performance of Macbeth, with the following note: "The management, in presenting Shakespeare’s masterpiece, MACBETH, Desire to state that it is done by particular request of many citizens and soldiers, there having been numerous solicitations left to that effect at the Box Office." Because the note specifically mentions that soldiers wanted to see the play, we can surmise that these military men were not, in fact, tired of thinking about death and war, but wanted Macbeth's regicide and tyrannicide to help punctuate their experience of the war. Literary magazines provided political cartoons using Hamlet to comment on a tax on watches (Southern Punch, April 9, 1864) and Romeo & Juliet to worry over the influx of soldiers in the city (Southern Punch, November 7, 1863). And on the tercentenary of Shakespeare's birth in 1864, The Daily Richmond Enquirer lamented the city's inability to show Shakespeare a proper birthday celebration because the war had so decimated the city's supplies ("Shakespeare's Birthday," Daily Richmond Enquirer, April 23, 1864.).

Another valuable source is Mary Chesnut's wartime diary, in which she refers to Shakespeare several times. She writes of reading Shakespeare's plays and discussing them with friends, including Varina Howell Davis, wife of the Confederacy's president Jefferson Davis. Mrs. Davis herself also knew and used Shakespeare. After her removal from Richmond in advance of its surrender to Union troops, she wrote a letter to a friend in which she quoted Macbeth. Now that Mrs. Davis no longer had to endure the noise of the Union siege against Richmond, she wrote, she could sleep again, since the "fitful fever" of Richmond was in her past. This refers back to Macbeth's declaration after Duncan's murder: "Duncan in his his grave; / After life's fitful fever he sleeps well" (3.2.23-24).

What sort of southerners attended the Shakespeare performances? Was it mainly civilians in Richmond that attended these performances? What about those in the military or CS government? Did they continue after Union occupation in 1865? Also, Beyond Richmond, how did performances in general -- whether they be in camp for soldiers or on the home front (which in some cases blended with the battlefront) -- impact Southerners experiencing the war? 

JH: In Richmond, everyone attended the theatre. Ticket prices ranged from fifty cents for the "Colored Gallery" up to $15 for private box seats in the Dress Circle. Of those scholars who have studied Richmond's theatres during the Civil War, all of them have studiously ignored the issue of Black audiences. In fact, most gloss over the audience almost entirely, save to mention that soldiers attended the theatre regularly. A complete understanding of how often Black men and women attended the theatre is therefore difficult to achieve. The 1860 census indicates that 820 free Blacks, 2466 enslaved people, and 3570 Whites were living in Richmond at the time. Since we know that the New Richmond Theatre advertised three tiers of prices for "colored" seating sections in 1863, we can surmise that at least some Black people were attending the theatre, though how many and how often is unknown.

Southern wartime theatre outside of Richmond is beyond the scope of my project, except in the most general of terms. Most major cities had robust theatrical communities, Shakespeare was popular nationwide, and most cities shut down their theatres for at least part of the war. An evening at the theatre was long and did not consist of a single performance--often there would be an opening set of songs and/or dances, then the evening's main play, then usually a short, farcical afterpiece.

Thank you, Jess for joining us today to chat about your research. 

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